Role-playing games are built around talking. And talking in video games is, in most cases, seriously boring.
The most appealing part of game interactivity is action — being able to control how your avatar moves, fights, behaves. Sitting through long-winded expository discussions between characters can be a monumental drag, either because you have next to no influence over the course of the conversation, or because, if given the option to pick from a predetermined set of questions and answers, the minor control you’re given doesn’t make up for the inertia-inducing dullness of the chats.
Participating in talky sequences is certainly better than just sitting through totally scripted cutscenes. But they still break up the action’s momentum in a noticeable way, and give you such a flimsy sense of actual contribution to the direction of the storyline that they mostly just frustrate by highlighting the limitations of game construction.
And then there’s “Mass Effect” and its recently released sequel “Mass Effect 2,” produced by expert RPG outfit BioWare. Just as in BioWare’s two superb “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” titles, “Mass Effect” and its sequel offer planet-spanning intergalactic RPG action that’s split between decent combat and immense blabbering. “KOTOR”‘s dialogue was conveyed through a mechanic that required you to choose from a list of questions, answers and other responses. The best part of these innumerable sequences — which were the primary means of furthering the story, as well as developing characters — was that your choices had some bearing on your character (whether he or she was a hero or villain), and consequently on the outcome of the story itself.
Being able to have a direct influence on the course of the game — being a baddie led to a considerably different overall experience than being a good guy — was enlivening, and one of the keys to that series’ success. But the conversations themselves were, even at their finest, tedious affairs in which you had to wait for whomever you were talking with to finish a speech before even getting to see your choices (much less select one). It left you feeling stuck in a rather static dynamic that lacked any sort of free-flowing conversational back-and-forth.
2007’s “Mass Effect” and its even better follow-up go a long way toward correcting the conversation problem by introducing a “dialogue wheel,” a graphic featuring different Q&A choices spaced out along even intervals. It makes the various branching options available much clearer and more intuitive: Do you want to continue down a certain line of questioning, or redirect attention another way? Not only can you see the many directions in which a chat can go, but, not being a list, there’s no “top” choice. Choosing the “bad” response is just as practical (and thus as reasonable) as choosing the “good” one. The three paths you can take — “Paragon,” “Renegade,” or some sort of neutral in-between — share an equal value.
Better yet, the dialogue wheel doesn’t wait to appear until people have stopped talking — what feels like a minor upgrade at first, but that adds up to a far greater sense of engagement in the dialogue at hand. There’s less waiting, and so heightened attention. By affording you early peeks at, and the early ability to select, follow-up responses, conversations in “Mass Effect” flow in a manner foreign to almost every other RPG I’ve ever played. There are no silent stretches between remarks while you decides on your next comment. Since you’ve selected what you’re going to say next while people are still talking, chats proceed with a fluidity that heightens the sense of immersion.
“Mass Effect 2” barely upgrades this dialogue system — the only new addition is that, at certain moments, you’re now granted the ability to interrupt a conversation by selecting a “Paragon” or “Renegade” option that normally causes your character, Jedi-ish Lieutenant Commander Shepard, to take a drastic course of physical action (like, hilariously, punching your conversation partner in the face). Given how sporadically it shows up, this feature doesn’t do that much to enhance your experience. But then, BioWare was wise not to tinker too much with a mechanic that works — and does so, ultimately, by upending your expectations.
In both “Mass Effect” games, dialogue wheel choices are presented in short snippets that only approximate what the character will actually say. Your choices only imply tone, not the exact words that will be spoken. And because some choices lead to surprising comments from your character, this situation creates unpredictability and, fundamentally, a lack of control over dialogue. In other words, you’re given greater power over conversations even as you’re denied total control — a nifty balancing act that creates drama and suspense, and that many exposition-heavy genre competitors would be shrewd to duplicate.